“I wouldn’t go there; I’ve heard it’s racist…” I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve heard these kinds of statements as friends discuss travel destinations, keeping the issue of race firmly at the forefront of their minds. The world is your oyster, but as a person of colour, navigating in this racially diverse yet disproportionally divided oyster can be a tricky business.
Setting foot in a country where the nation’s skin colour is different from your own can, for some, be an unsettling experience. However, as a person of colour living in the UK, the experience of looking around a room and realising that you’re looking significantly more melanated than the other inhabitants is hardly an uncommon one. So why does travelling as a person of colour (POC) present such unique challenges when we already face similar problems at home?
From strange looks and jokes about my “tan” in Norway to being chased by children and hearing the familiar shouts of “Muzungu’ (white person) or “Mihindi” (Indian person) in Uganda, in my limited amount of travelling, I have certainly had my fair share of peculiar, race-related experiences. I’m a girl of mixed heritage and I feel that this offers me a unique insight into the complexities of race and skin colour. Despite the fact that I am half Ugandan, my lighter skin led to strange looks and curiosity in predominantly black Uganda, and in a majority white Norway. An understanding of what POC might find offensive has not yet been fully realised.
I’m from London and am lucky enough to have been raised in a multicultural environment where if I ever experienced issues because of the colour of my skin I was surrounded by a community of different skin colours and cultures, meaning that I rarely felt like an outsider. Although my travel experiences showed an unawareness of racial sensitivities, I never felt personally attacked and was able to recognise that a lack of racial exposure in these countries had led to curiosity about people who looked different, and to ignorance about how to appropriately communicate this curiosity. While England is certainly more multicultural than other countries I have visited, being stared at or receiving insensitive comments about my skin colour have been situations that I’ve faced both in London and less multicultural areas of the country. It is perhaps clear that many of the experiences we as people of colour experience are not caused by a purposeful desire to offend, but instead by a lack of exposure and ignorance leading to overt displays of racial insensitivity rather than the microaggressions that are more familiar at home.
Now don’t get me wrong, many POC have experienced more overt and harmful experiences of racism than I, but I think it’s important not to allow ourselves to be consumed by fears of racism abroad. We shouldn’t limit our own travel experiences with fears of the unknown. Racism and ignorance are everywhere and it’s only through travelling to every distant country that our dream for a more egalitarian world can be realised.